Dr. Robert R. Seyda



We must stop and take in the wonders of God’s sovereign grace. He was willing to suspend His judgment, but only because it pleased Him to do so. And so He exclaims, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.1 By sparing these rebellious people in His mercy, God made them a witness to His grace. Without such sovereign grace, no one would ever be saved. Israel as a nation owed all their blessings to God’s mercy and compassion. Had God done what was right they would have been cut off from the land of the living forever. So, if it pleased God to do that for these ungrateful Israelites, why would He not be allowed to show mercy and grace to the Gentiles? Based on God’s mercy and forgiveness to them, why was Israel complaining?2

F. F. Bruce gives us his insight concerning God’s mercy and compassion. He also goes back to where God agreed to let Moses see His goodness,3 as a result of his intercession for the people who had sinned by worshiping a golden calf. The force of God’s words in declaring His mercy and compassion draws power from no other source than His own sovereign grace.4 This truth is not only held sacred by the Jews, but the Muslims in their Qur’ān have a similar saying:And if it had not been for the favor of Allah upon you and His mercy… and because Allah is Kind and Merciful.”5 In light of the atrocious actions on the part of some radical Islamic jihadists in their terrorist endeavors, it shows that they do not exhibit the same qualities and virtues of their Allah.

One Messianic Bible scholar notes that Paul points his readers’ attention to the fact that God’s current dealing with Israel is similar to the way He dealt with Abraham’s children in the past. He does so to stop any false conclusions being drawn at this point, namely, that God had been fair to one and unfair to the other. How could He take away what was destined for Israel and turn around and give it to the Gentiles? Paul wanted them to learn that no one can influence or control God’s mercy. There is no one group who holds exclusive rights to it. He is God of all, and His mercy is equal to His justice.6

Verse 16: So, God chooses those He decides to show mercy to, and His choice does not depend on what people want or try to do to deserve it.

Paul’s statement here is a sobering message, yet so neglected in our practice. Man’s salvation does not depend on where, what, why, who, when, or how it’s done. Sometimes we place more emphasis and have more faith in the form used in getting someone to accept Christ than we do in God’s promise that “He will have mercy on whom He wants to have mercy.” If this verse is not true, that the man let down through the roof to be healed and forgiven, and the thief on the cross next to Jesus were never truly forgiven because it wasn’t done in the same fashion it is today. Growing up in a fundamental Pentecostal church I thought people could only get saved on Sunday nights down at the altar. I learned later that a person could accept the Lord as their Savior on an airplane, in a restaurant, even in a bar. Yes, whosoever will may come, but it is all because of the mercy, grace, and compassion of God drawing them.

That’s why we didn’t get saved: we were saved. That’s also why we didn’t find Christ: Christ found us; that’s why we don’t go to His door and knock without an invitation, He came to our door and knocked with an invitation to the kingdom of God. That’s why when we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, it’s not that we are accepting Him, but we are acknowledging that He has accepted us to be one of God’s children. This is all done because we are convinced by His Word and believe that He is our Savior, which truth we accept by faith.

So Paul states very clearly, it does not depend on the choice we make but the choice God makes. The Living Bible renders verse 16 this way: “So God will choose anyone he decides to show mercy to, and his choice does not depend on what people want or try to do.” Paul may have had in mind more than just the message he was giving, but against what the Greek philosophers taught about man’s will. For instance, Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in his handbook on ethics, says that when facing any set of circumstances that require action or a decision: “First acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is unimportant and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder [you].7

John tells us in his Gospel that even though many Jews rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man sent from God as the Messiah, and although there were some who did accept His message, still it was up to our Lord to give them the right to become children of God.8 Then, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Master made this point: “Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it will go next, so it is with the Spirit. We do not know on whom He will next bestow this life from heaven.9 So when Paul wrote the Philippians he told them that they are affected by God working within them, helping them to want to obey Him, and then helping them carry out the things He wanted them to do.10 So it does take cooperation. God has no interest in making robots out of us. It is that act of our will to obey that God takes as our, “Thank You, Lord, for saving my soul.”

So Paul’s statement that God’s choice of those to whom He shows mercy is not dependent on what they try to do to impress Him, but on what He sees in their hearts, inspired Origen to say that we must understand this in light of David’s words: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”11 It is clear that the builder is not sitting around waiting for God to build his house for him. Rather, he is involved and works hard to lay the foundation, build the walls, put on the roof, etc. Since he is a believer and everything he has is dedicated to God, he prays for God to help him so that it can be done properly. When he is finished and someone looks at the house and complements him, he will say, “If the Lord had not helped me I could have never gotten it done.”12 Likewise, Paul sowed and Apollos watered but God gave the increase, “so neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.13 In the same way, Paul says here, “It depends not upon man’s will or exertion but upon God’s mercy alone.1415

Early church theologian Jerome says that we should understand from what Paul says here about how the will and motivation must also be ours. But recognize that to put into effect what we want and are motivated to do will depend on the goodness and mercy of God. All we must do is look at the many testimonies found in Scripture to show that when God’s children call out to Him for help, it is not only to supply their needs but to keep them healthy and holy to complete the job they are involved in. When we read through the Psalms we will find that effort was always accompanied with prayer.16 This makes it clear then that we can either allow God’s mercy and grace to be part of our lives, or we can try to do everything without God’s help. When we take that attitude in trying to find and fulfill God’s will, it will guarantee failure. It isn’t that God wants His children sitting around doing nothing because they are afraid they will offend His will for their lives. Instead, He wants them to think, plan, and decide as they pray for guidance and strength. That way the believer’s will and God’s will can work together.17

Augustine also notices that Paul does not eliminate the freewill factor, but says that exercising our free will is not enough to do what God has in store for us to accomplish. No matter what we do or how much we do, unless it is done with love and compassion it will never get God’s approval. And this love and compassion can only come when such work is done by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, although we labor hard and give much time and effort to our work, the will to do it must be based on our being called. It is only those who are called that God will give them the strength to succeed and survive. The reason the calling is so important is that being called allows those who are called to be lead by the Spirit to wherever God needs and wants them to be. Augustine’s understanding of this calling does not depend on a person willing it themselves nor by striving to attain it. It comes only by the mercy of God because we want to be good, in spite of the fact that our will, which by itself can do nothing, is still present.18 In other words, neither willing to be saved, wanting to be saved, or working to be saved will suffice. Without the love, grace, and mercy of God, it is impossible.

But Pelagius contends that there is a big difference in the way the Jews understand God’s sovereign will and man’s freewill and the way Paul teaches it. The Jewish point of view is that it does not depend on the one who wills or on the one who runs,19 God will have mercy on whomever He wills and harden the heart of whomever He wills. But Paul does not eliminate the influence of man’s freewill in this process. If the Jewish argument were to prove true, then someone may ask the Apostle why he insists on running the race?20 In fact, why should he encourage others to do the same?21 However, Paul is certain that God does not veto man’s freewill, therefore the question becomes mute since it is something God does not do.22 And almost as if he knows about these differing points of view on what Paul said, one early church writers believes it is because from here to verse 19 Paul assumes the role of devil’s advocate, saying that we do not have it in us to do either good or evil, but that this is found only in the will of God. And acting as the devil’s advocate, Paul did what Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness, he quotes from the Bible. In this case, the quote is taken from the prophet Isaiah23.24

1 John Cavin, Ibid.

2 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.,

3 Exodus 33:19

4 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 193

5 Qur’an, Chapter 24: An-Nur, verse 20

6 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 Epictetus: The Enchiridion 32

8 John 1:12

9 Ibid. 3:8

10 Philippians 2:13

11 Psalm 127:1

12 Cf., Psalm 124:1

13 1 Corinthians 3:6-7

14 See verse 16

15 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

16 Cf. Psalm 86

17 Jerome: Against the Pelagians 1.5.

18 Augustine: On Romans 62, loc. cit.

19 It is important to note that the term “runs” or “runneth” as used by Paul, comes from a Greek word that means: “exertion,” which is used to describe vigorous action.

20 2 Timothy 4:7

21 See 1 Corinthians 9:24

22 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

23 See Isaiah 29:16; 45:9

24 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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